Wildlife - Species

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)


Despite their name, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs. Unlike true crabs, which have two pairs of antennae, a pair of jaws, and five pairs of legs, horseshoe crabs lack antennae and jaws, and they have seven pairs of legs, including a pair of chelicerae. Chelicerae are appendages similar to those used by spiders and scorpions for grasping and crushing. In addition, horseshoe crabs have book lungs, similar to spiders and different from crabs, which have gills. Thus, horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than they are to other crabs. Their carapace is divided into three sections: the anterior portion is the prosoma; the middle section is the opithosoma; and the "tail" is called the telson. Horseshoe crabs have two pairs of eyes located on the prosoma: one anterior set of simple eyes and one set of lateral compound eyes similar to those of insects. In addition, they possess a series of photoreceptors (light-sensitive organs) on the opithosoma and telson.

Preferred Habitat and Biology

Adult horseshoe crabs are benthic animals inhabiting both shallow estuarine areas and offshore habitats near the continental shelf. The range of the horseshoe crab extends from northern Maine to the Yucatan Peninsula. They are particularly abundant in Delaware Bay, the center of their distribution, and in coastal areas between Virginia and New Jersey. Different populations of horseshoe crabs are thought to inhabit every major estuary along the Atlantic coast. Each population can be differentiated from the others based on size of adult crabs, the color of their carapace, and pigments present in their eyes.

Early each spring, as estuarine water temperature approaches 20°C, adult horseshoe crabs move inshore to seek suitable spawning habitat. Throughout the spring, females with males attached to their carapace follow flooding tides high onto the beach, where they excavate nests and deposit thousands of eggs. During mating, the male grasps the female's carapace and fertilizes her eggs as she deposits them in the nest cavity. Oftentimes, other unattached "satellite" males may also fertilize some of the eggs. Mating and nesting coincide with high tides. Nests are excavated by the female on the intertidal zone of sandy beaches, and eggs are laid in clusters Spawning activity is especially heavy during nighttime spring tides. Females nest several times per season, usually returning to deposit more eggs on subsequent high tides. After approximately two weeks, depending on temperature, moisture and oxygen levels, larval horseshoe crabs emerge from the nest. Larval Limulus are semi-planktonic for about three weeks before their transition to a benthic existence. They then settle to the bottom and assume a benthic existence, typically spending their first two years in intertidal sand flat habitats near beaches where they were spawned. Adults return to deeper estuary bays and continental shelf waters after the breeding season. Horseshoe crabs are long-lived animals; after attaining sexual maturity, in 9 to 12 years, they may live for another 10 years or more. Like other arthropods, horseshoe crabs must molt in order to grow. As the crab ages, more and more time passes between molts, with 16 to 19 molts occurring before a crab becomes mature, stops growing, and switches energy expenditure to reproduction. Adult horseshoe crabs feed on a variety of bottom-dwelling organisms including marine worms, shellfish, and decaying animal matter. The larvae and juvenile stages are preyed upon by many species of fish and birds, and adult horseshoe crabs are known to be a food item for the threatened loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta.

Species Significance

Horseshoe crabs are an important species, both commercially and ecologically. They are currently the primary bait used in the whelk and eel fisheries along the Atlantic coast. Crabs in the ACE Basin were once harvested in small numbers for this purpose. However, the State of South Carolina prohibited this activity in 1991. Horseshoe crabs are also harvested for use in biomedicine. A clotting agent in the crab's blood, known as Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate (LAL), is used to detect microbial pathogens in medical intravenous fluids, injectable drugs, and supplies. Biomedical companies purchase large crabs, which are harvested by trawlers or by hand from spawning beaches. The crabs are transported to the LAL production facility, bled, then transported back to the general harvest vicinity and released alive. LAL is currently used worldwide as the standard (FDA required) test for microbial contamination in injectable pharmaceutical products. Horseshoe crabs have also been used in eye research and the development of wound dressings and surgical sutures. Ecologically, horseshoe crabs are an important component of coastal food webs. In particular, horseshoe crab eggs are the primary source of fat for at least 20 species of migratory shore birds. Larval and juvenile crabs are also food for many species of fish and invertebrates, while adult crabs are favored by loggerhead sea turtles and sharks. In addition, horseshoe crabs have been shown to be a controlling factor in benthic species composition through their feeding activities.

Resource managers are concerned that the health of horseshoe crab populations along the northeastern coast of the United States is threatened due to overharvest. New fishery regulations are being considered, and the National Marine Fisheries Service is currently developing a horseshoe crab fishery management plan for the East Coast. Recent studies (Summer 1997) suggest that between 10% and 20% of crabs harvested for LAL production do not survive (even though the Food and Drug Administration mandates that they be returned to the water alive). In South Carolina, the harvest of horseshoe crabs is limited to the LAL industry, and a permit has been required since 1991. This species is not currently listed as threatened nor endangered.


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Butowski, N. H. (ed.). 1994. Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast horseshoe crab fishery management plan. Agreement Commitment Report 1994. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Chesapeake Bay Program, Annapolis, MD.

Keinath, J. A., J. A. Musick, and R. A. Byles. 1987. Aspects of the biology of Virginia's sea turtles: 1979-1986. Virginia Journal of Science 38(4):329-336.

Sekiguchi, K. 1988. Post Embryonic Development of the Horseshoe Crab. Biological Bulletin. 174:337-345.

Shuster, C. N., Jr. 1982. A pictorial review of the natural history and ecology of the horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, with reference to other Limulidae. Physiology and Biology of Horseshoe Crabs: Studies on Normal and Environmentally Stressed Animals. Alan R. Liss, Inc. New York.

Thompson, M. 1997. Species Profiles: Horseshoe crab. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Fisheries Focus 6(8): 1, 6-7.